Holidays and Cancer: Thanksgiving


I was diagnosed in October and began chemotherapy at the beginning of November. The traditional month of food and family was one that I had always looked forward to.

I was diagnosed with cancer in October and began chemotherapy at the beginning of November. The traditional month of food and family was one that I always looked forward to.

I loved to cook large meals for my family much more than the day-to-day dinner. Because no one told me that I wouldn't have the energy to get off the couch, and because I was doing the "I am woman” routine, I made the usual plans to host Thanksgiving at my house with a Normal Rockwell turkey and all the trimmings—for 15 people.

If you have not run across the "I am woman" routine, that is when we refuse to admit that we have cancer. Instead of accepting that we are facing a life-changing disease, we look at it as a mild inconvenience. Our identity is caught up in events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Creating the perfect Thanksgiving dinner told me I would live and I was still needed and all would be well.

It was insane, but look at the other part of what Thanksgiving and Christmas are to the woman in the house. This is our time to shine. It's the ultimate in multitasking for the American mother. There is calm in the kitchen and a turkey in the oven. I can recall thinking that I would make Thanksgiving happen come, as my father would say, "hell or high water."

I was the oldest daughter in my family and everyone knew if I said I was going to do something, I would. This changed with cancer. Never before had I dealt with something that I could not overcome in fulfilling what I wanted to do. This was a first and it was scary. And why should my family think any different. When they asked me how I was, I said, "fine, fine." Of course you know that FINE stands for. It's an acronym for frustrated, insecure, nauseated and exhausted. I told my family I was fine, and they believed me.

I don't think I actually made it through shopping for dinner before having a breakdown in the grocery store when I accepted the reality that I couldn't do Thanksgiving. I couldn't do the shopping because I couldn't remember what I needed to buy, and when the smells from the bakery in the store hit me it was far from the usual pleasure. It made me sick to my stomach.

I didn't have the energy to pour a glass of milk, much less serve dinner for 15. And, since the nausea and vomiting had settled in at that point, I would have had to take some time off between courses to vomit my brains out before serving the next course.

Accepting this reality was as big an emotional reality as physical. So if I couldn't care for my baby or make our traditional dinners, what good was I?

Kirtley was only a year old at that point and could have cared less where or what we ate, but I cared.

And let me add that if the person with cancer is the husband or children, we wives and mothers are doing our best to keep things normal for them. But be careful. You are probably just as exhausted as they are, and trying to do the traditional dinner is still going to take more than you have in terms of energy.

The best thing to do is be honest with yourself whether the patient, the spouse or the child. Communicate about where you are and what is important to you. Find ways to meet everyone's expectations, perhaps planning new traditions. Yet, it is important that everyone has permission to express their feelings whether it be joy, fear, sadness or pain. Children may need to grieve the loss of a family tradition.

If the Friday after Thanksgiving has always been a family shopping day, reconsider. Suppressed immune systems have no place at the mall where every germ known to man resides.

If Thanksgiving has always been a time to face the masses at the mall, this year the shopping may have to be online. If you lost someone, spend time talking about him or her and sharing memories. Releasing balloons is a visible and colorful way for young children to remember someone.

Thanksgiving revolves around food, and families often have favorite recipes they prepare together. If mom can’t do it this year, it could be that the recipe could be modified to make it easier. Instead of making the cookies to decorate, buy them and then decorate the premade cookies.

Take care of yourself if you are the caregiver. Get exercise and eat well. Take a hot bath or have a nap. Find distractions such as going to the movie with the kids while your sick family member sleeps. Plan ahead and make time for rest.

Probably the most important of all aspects of getting through the holidays is that when friends and family ask if they can help, SAY YES. A friend of mine heard her husband telling a friend that they were fine and didn't need help. She grabbed the phone from him and said, "he may not need help, but I do."

We pride ourselves on never needing or asking for help. This is ridiculous. To ask friends and family to do something helps them feel better about what you are going through. Let them help. Make a list of things that need to be done. Grocery shopping, picking up the kids for a movie, renting a hard to find movie. It is OK to ask for help. I had a friend who asked her best girlfriend to bring her a new nail polish every week. This gave the friend something fun to do and my friend looked forward to that new bottle of polish with anticipation. She and her teenage daughter had fun painting her toenails in exotic colors.

It is also fine to say NO. People who have never dealt with cancer may think they have the perfect answer to what you need. If it isn't, then say no. And give them an alternative. For example, one family I know got together and rented a small party room at a local restaurant for Thanksgiving before asking if my friend wanted to do that. Surprises are not what anyone needs when they feel rotten. They told her they had a surprise and that all she had to do was get dressed.

She did, and when she arrived to find 20 friends and family and their children running around, it was more than she could handle. She didn't want to be there and she knew she was risking her health every time someone sneezed in her face. She called her husband over and they left.

At the root of all this is communication. If your sick family member cannot think about it, take it over, but ask first. If the planning is what she or he loves, then help them with that and then delegate all the tasks to make it a Thanksgiving to remember.

Christmas has another whole set of expectations and I'll address some of those next.

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